Behind protest at art institute, a BJP vs BJP tussle for Vadodara university’s control

Exactly 15 years after one of its students was arrested for allegedly “hurting religious sentiments” through two of his paintings, a mob gathered outside the Faculty of Fine Arts of MS University (MSU) in Vadodara on May 5 to disrupt jury evaluation of final-year students’ artworks. BJP leader Hasmukh Vaghela who is a member of the MSU Syndicate, the university’s highest body, led the protest. This demonstration, party insiders said, was the result of a factional feud in the BJP for the control of the Syndicate.

Vaghela was elected to the Syndicate for the first time in February 2021 from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-backed group Sankalan Samiti. The 38-year-old is also a part of the BJP city unit, a two-time member of the institution’s Senate, and an alumnus of the university’s pharmacy department. On Thursday, he attempted to barge into the evaluation hall to “scrutinise objectionable artworks” that “disrespect gods and goddesses”. The protest was triggered after photos of the allegedly objectionable artworks went viral on social media.

During the demonstration, the BJP leader was accompanied by advocate Niraj Jain of the Hindu Jagran Manch. Jain, a former Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader, was the complainant in the 2007 case in which Fine Arts student Chandramohan was arrested. As the right-wing protesters raised slogans and warned students of the “consequences of disrespecting religious sentiments”, a group of students stood between them and the jury hall. Jain and Vaghela got into a verbal spat with the department’s teachers and demanded that they be allowed to enter the hall to “check the obscene artworks”.

But the Faculty of Fine Arts’ teachers did not relent and told the two that the artworks in the social media photos were not part of the evaluation. Threatening the faculty members, Vaghela said, “This faculty has a record of indulging in such blasphemous activities related to religion. History is testimony to their anti-Hindu mindset that reflects in their annual exhibitions and actions time and again. We will not tolerate this. We will complain to the Education Minister to initiate strict action.”

Jain contended that the department violated a resolution adopted after the Chandramohan incident. According to the lawyer, the resolution stated that a committee of experts would scrutinise artworks being considered for exhibition to remove those that “cause provocation or hurt sentiments”.

Fact-finding committee

As a result of the fracas, the university set up a nine-member fact-finding committee to probe the incident and suspended the annual exhibition — it would have been the first since the Covid-19 pandemic began. “These artworks were not part of our evaluations and so obviously they were not for public display,” said Dean Jayaram Poduval. “The frames of which pictures are circulating were planted as part of a conspiracy to taint the image of the faculty and disrupt the examination.”

A senior city BJP leader said the controversy was the result of an ongoing fight between Sankalan Samiti and Team MSU, which also consists of BJP leaders, for the control of the university’s highest body. At present, 12 of the 15 elected members of the Syndicate are from Team MSU (nine of them won uncontested) while Sankalan Samiti has three members — Vaghela, who won uncontested, and two others elected from the teachers’ category. The Faculty of Fine Arts’ current representative in the Senate is Samiti member Bipin Patel. His wife Ambika is a professor in the Faculty and part of the fact-finding panel.

A senior BJP functionary who backs Team MSU said, “It is a fact that on the MSU campus, Sankalan Samiti, comprising primary members of the BJP and backed by the RSS, is trying to gain more control over the seats. The current controversy at the Faculty of Fine Arts stands to benefit the Samiti since Dean Jayaram Poduval is from Team MSU. The Sankalan Samiti has been eyeing the post to prop up one of their top contenders for the position, which will automatically get them a seat in the Senate. By default, all deans of faculties are Senate members. So, if Poduval vacates his office, Team MSU will also lose one seat in the Senate. For the Syndicate elections, held every three years, only Senate members can vote. At the moment, Team MSU benefits in the Syndicate directly because of the majority it enjoys in the Senate.”

The BJP leader said no one supports “disrespect of religion” through artworks but it had yet to be proven if the pieces of art that the mob was protesting against were part of the submissions. “No one will like it if art is used to hurt religious sentiments. Then, the exhibition had not opened and the allegations were made during a closed-door evaluation process … The fact-finding committee will submit its report but one cannot deny that this controversy could have been avoided by waiting for the public show to begin. In case of anything objectionable, one could have raised it through an appropriate complaint. At least, one can expect that much restraint from a Syndicate member.”

Vaghela is no stranger to controversies. After being elected to the Syndicate, he made allegations of irregularities in the appointments of the university’s teaching and non-teaching staff and made representations to Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel and Education Minister Jitu Vaghani. In 2018, he stirred up an uproar at the Senate’s annual meeting by demanding the suspension of two students from the Institute of Leadership and Governance for meeting former JNU student leader Kanhaiya Kumar. “MSU should not fall prey to Communist forces … such students should be suspended or they will break Gujarat into pieces,” he said at the meeting.

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